Left Luggage – a short story

Left Luggage

They found a suitcase behind a wall in our house. Bound up with parcel string, it was wedged tight against the chimney breast, cobwebbed, and caked in brick dust. It had been walled in behind plasterboard that was tacked to the ancient beams. The board was papered over with woodchip and brushed with a slap of dripping emulsion. All my fault. I’d invited them in.

I couldn’t remember a time when the wall hadn’t been there. God knows how old the case was. It was tartan-patterned and could’ve been a child’s toy. But the parcel string that criss-crossed it, holding it together with granny knots and reef knots, suggested something was held within it. The tartan was a pattern like a skirt I’d been made to wear for Sunday school – post-box red with navy and straw lines – but I was sure that it wasn’t mine. I sniffed and drew in damp, mustiness, a lingering trace of lavender.

I should never have called the workmen in. I could hear Cecil’s voice now. ‘What did you want to do that for? Stupid bloody tart. You know what happens now, don’t you?’

We’d had problems before when we’d used a local firm. They knew the reputation of Outlands and they’d taken photos of the rooms and staircase, even posing for selfies by the tree stump. Cecil swore blind they’d taken some of our ornaments as trophies, but he was such a hoarder I don’t know how he could remember what was here and what wasn’t.

I’d tried to assess the old place, room at a time, wondering how we were going to see our way through another winter. I’d started with the back bedroom and spotted patches of damp, seen that the paper had begun to peel away and the plaster beneath was crumbling. So, I got the builders in. I was careful not to pick a local firm but, yes, I’d started all this. I should’ve known better.

That afternoon, crashing out after a late, late shift I was sprawled out on the settee, headphones on, cushions shoved against my face, trying to drown out the hammering and scraping from the back bedroom. Drilling, then sawing, then stomping about and crowbarring floorboards off creaking beams. Three of them managing to sound like an invading army. The foreman it was, Mick, who’d tapped my foot giving me a start. I tugged the headphones off, so they clamped round my neck and I sat bolt upright. I hated anyone touching my feet. ‘What,’ I said, sharply. I held the cushion like a shield in case my dressing gown rode up and gave him a flash.

            ‘Sorry luv. I did knock.’ Mick was a gentleman and didn’t let his gaze drop, though I’d caught him clocking my black-painted toenails in the kitchen. He’d shaken his head at me shuffling about, bare soles slapping the red tiled floor. ‘You’ll catch your death, petal.’

‘I don’t do slippers. I’m not ready for dying yet,’ I’d told him.

            ‘Bit of a delay,’ he said. ‘I need you to look at something.’

Mick’s face was pinkish as if he’d shaved and stood in the wind. He was the hipflask type, tot of scotch in his builder’s tea to keep off the chill. He wore a dusty, padded checked shirt stuffed with receipts and bookie’s pencils. I pulled my heels to my bum, tucking my dressing gown tight as a drumskin and picking at a cornflake that had stuck to the towelling fabric.

            ‘You’ll have to tell us what you want to do,’ he said and set off, jogging up the stairs, not waiting for me to follow. ‘It’s not the electrics again, is it?’ I called after him. The wiring at Outlands might’ve been put in by Thomas Edison. Any more than a hairdryer and a kettle on the go and the lights flickered and shorted out. ‘You need to come and have a look.’ I tugged at my dressing gown as I climbed the stairs, tying the cord tight. I felt like a proper lazy bitch, in my bedclothes, with my bed-hair, in the afternoon. I wanted to put on some joggers, a sweater, at least pull a brush through my hair. ‘You need to come now,’ Mick said. ‘Tell us what to do.’ He’d paused on the landing, resting a hand on the newel post. I didn’t like his tone. Serious, I thought.

            ‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ I said.

I should’ve known there’d be bother. We didn’t have the cash to fix up the back bedroom, but it was my idea we could tart it up, rent it out for a few quid. Mick had been in the game for donkey’s years and his brief assessment, with hands on his hips and sucking his teeth, was to knock the wall through and create a bit more space. Then he’d sort the damp. ‘In here, look,’ he said. It felt odd being invited into one of our own rooms, but then I’d rarely been into the back bedroom. I always found it cold, damp, unsettling. A full-length mirror stood in the corner, black-spotted and blurry with condensation. Or perhaps Cecil had smeared something on it to protect it. Thickly varnished floorboards bowed in the middle of the room like the hold of a ship. Patches on the ceilings and walls had gone the colour of old maps. Stiff chocolate-brown and orange curtains hung from a plastic rail and I’d left them, so I didn’t have to see outside.

The back bedroom looked out upon what was left of the woods. On the bank opposite, beyond the gorse and the brambles, was the stump. It was there that I’d stumbled, wrenching my knee, as I ran from Craig Moffatt. Tangled in the roots of that stump, had been a skull. I didn’t know what it was and could only see a pale, smooth patch of bone poking through the black soil. I’d dug deeper and put my fingers through an eye socket.

            ‘You won’t see from there, petal. You’ll need to come in.’

Mick frowned at Gary’s use of ‘petal’ even though he was always doing it himself (perhaps it was a rank thing) but I wasn’t bothered. I was clinging to the doorframe, leaning in, as if I might be able to see that way. The room was bare, all gone except for the cloudy mirror. I’d thrown what little furniture was left, after breaking it up with a claw hammer. I’d chucked it into a pile in the yard, doused it with some petrol I’d found in the outhouse and watched black smoke drift towards the motorway as the sun set. Cecil had no use for the petrol since his old Jag had gone to the scrapyard. It’d sat there rusting on bricks for years. Gary and Pete – I think the other one was called – were crouching over something. They both wore heavy workmen’s boots which looked at odds with their shorts and yellow hi-vis. Gary pointed at a break in the plasterboard. He’d put a hammer or maybe a boot through it, but it was powdery and shot through with damp. I clasped my dressing gown to my chest and stooped to see whatever I was meant to be looking at. Gary pointed his phone at it, so the lit screen picked out a small, white plastic handle and a tartan pattern.

            ‘Some sort of case,’ Pete said.

            ‘Strange place to go on your holidays,’ Gary said, grinning.

            ‘I got them to put it back,’ Mick said, glaring at him. ‘Till you were here.’

My scalp prickled. They know about the house, I thought. They know all about its reputation and its past. ‘Drag it out then,’ I said. I’d no idea why they’d take it out and slot it back. Perhaps Mick wanted me to see exactly how they’d found it. I wasn’t getting on hands and knees in front of that lot in a dressing gown. Gary reached in, where he’d shone the phone and tugged at the handle. He got three fingers looped around it, unable to fit his whole hand through. The case scraped on the brick dust and boards as he dragged it and set it down at my knees.

            ‘Someone did not want anyone getting in there, did they?’

I didn’t catch it, but Mick gave Gary another look that silenced him. I swallowed back dust. Outside it was a dull, wet afternoon but what weak, retreating sunlight there was picked out the stump in a wash of yellow and grey. Do you know anything about this? I sat down on my heels, screwing my eyes tight, shutting it out.

            ‘You OK, luv?’ Pete said.

I coughed to clear my throat. ‘I expect it’s something of Cecil’s,’ I said. ‘Proper bloody hoarder, you know the type.’ Mick nodded. Gary and Pete were decent enough to get up and go for a smoke. I watched them make their way down the stairs, patting pockets in search of tobacco tins and papers. They hadn’t got as far as the hallway before they were muttering.

            ‘Oh yeah, watch that. It’ll break else,’ Mick said. He pointed at a silver chain and locket which had got trapped in the case as it’d been snapped shut. ‘I’ll give you a few minutes. Shout up when you’re ready.’ Mick handed me a blade for the parcel string. I watched him make his way down the stairs and listened for the tinkle of cups on the draining board, the clank of the pipes.

I should’ve waited for Cecil. I’d have to tell Mick not to mention it to him. Far as Mick was concerned I was paying. I took a deep breath, held out my trembling fingers. I took the knife and snuck out the blade. I ran a fingertip over the tartan pattern. The case was dented here and there, scratched with brick-dust. I cut the first piece of string and it twanged it had been pulled so tight. I stabbed and cut at the others until a cat’s cradle of parcel string lay beneath the case. My heart was pounding. I closed the bedroom door. Outside on the crazy paving, the men were smoking, hands clasped around mugs of orange tea. Mick glanced up, and seeing me, looked away. I knew they were talking about me.

A child’s case, almost a toy. That meant it didn’t belong to him, thank Christ. I got the blade inside the case and levered it against the lock. The blade slipped, and I had to crook my elbow into my hip to drive it in and twist till the lock came away from the case. I slumped back against the wall, light-headed with the effort. I opened the case, flipping the lid back against the wall. What did I expect to find? Clothes were neatly folded. A mohair sweater and a topaz dress that smelt fusty but shimmered like a peacock’s feathers when I draped it over my arm. I rummaged through the musty clothes. There were no labels, nothing so convenient as a driving licence or passport. Not even a receipt. Mick called to see how I was doing and, as I got to my feet, I kicked the locket and it slid beneath the boards, dragging the slender silver chain with it. I’d need a story for the builders. Cecil had made me promises he hadn’t kept. The suitcase meant there’d been at least one more victim.

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